Samuel Forrest says he was given a choice: Abandon his newborn son, or get a divorce.
It all started soon after Forrest's son, Leo, was born in Armenia on Jan. 21. When the pediatrician came out with the bundled baby, she had his face covered up, Forrest recounted to ABC News. Doctors soon told Forrest his son had Down syndrome. In Armenia, hospitals let parents decide whether they want to keep babies born with the condition.
"They took me in to see him and I looked at this guy and I said, he's beautiful -- he's perfect and I'm absolutely keeping him," Forrest said. But his wife felt differently. "I got the ultimatum right then. She told me if I kept him then we would get a divorce."
The baby's mother, Ruzan Badalyan, countered on Facebook that she gave no such ultimatum and that her husband offered no support in the decision-making process. "I faced two options: to take care of the child on my own in Armenia, or to abandon my maternal instincts and extend the baby an opportunity to enjoy a decent life with his father in New Zealand. I went for the second option."
Forrest, who is originally from New Zealand, set up a GoFundMe page titled "Bring Leo Home" to collect funds for him to care for Leo and move to Auckland. In just 10 days, more than $280,000 was raised by thousands of people. This sum far surpasses his initial goal of $60,000, and he says he plans to help others with the extra funds.
We will use some of the money you've given to fund facilities and programs here in Armenia that will support future parents to keep their kids despite all disabilities, and to help better care for the special ones who end up away from their Mom & Dad. We’d also like to share the surplus funds with the only orphanage in Armenia that regularly takes abandoned Down Syndrome babies as well as other organisations that can help these children – thanks to your support we can start to make a difference already.
The situation for children born with Down syndrome in Armenia can be bleak. Robin Sizemore, the executive director of North Carolina-based Hopscotch Adoptions, told The Huffington Post the issue stems from cultural ideology and underdeveloped medical institutions with little to no prenatal care.
"When a baby is born that has an obvious difference, the child is most likely going to be abandoned at the hospital, left to the orphanage," said Sizemore, whose international adoption agency works to place orphaned children from countries like Armenia and Georgia with adoptive parents in the U.S. and abroad. "If the family kept the child then subsequent children born 'healthy' -- a child with Down syndrome is healthy -- would have a hard time receiving marriage proposals. They're looking at it from a bigger perspective of no one will accept [the] family, other people will terminate relationships with them. They don't want to be tied to that."
A 2005 UNICEF report states that the majority of children placed into state-run orphanages have at least one parent. There is a particular reliance on institutional care for children with special needs, and UNICEF has been working to promote state-policy for de-institutionalization.
Sizemore said the Ministry of Justice in Armenia has made great strides in streamlining the adoption process for prospective families abroad.
Forrest was not immediately available when contacted by HuffPost.
This article has been updated with a response from Ruzan Badalyan.